InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Nov 2006

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The Mediauric Rise of Shaolin:
A Theory-Based Critique of KungfuQigong Magazine's Shaolin Articles

By LeRon Harrison
Copyright © LeRon Harrison 2006. All rights reserved.

Over the last decade the presence of Shaolin in the American martial arts community has grown; an increasing number of monks from the temple in Henan Province have emigrated to America, established schools, and begun teaching martial arts. With this growth comes a number of questions posed from within and outside of the Shaolin community. Examples of internally posed questions are: How should the Shaolin community in America view itself in relation to the main temple and to other martial communities; what is the best way to direct and develop the current growth? Examples of externally posed questions are: how should the various martial communities view the growing Shaolin community; how should these communities go about interacting with them?

To answer any of these questions, one must interpret and understand the codes, beliefs, and ideologies that the Shaolin monks and their schools operate under. The person responding to internally posed questions has access to these points of knowledge and their “orthodox” interpretation(s) as a member of the Shaolin community, but the person addressing the externally posed question, however, is not as fortunate. S/He must form a reading by ascertaining the ideologies and operating codes without such commentaries. A starting place to do this is martial arts magazines, and in particular Kungfu Qigong Magazine (or Kungfu Taiji Magazine as it now known), where numerous articles on Shaolin have appeared. While these articles can provide information to begin answering the externally posed questions, they can also, as Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki explain, build and “sustain the foundations of animosity, ... [which] arise from a sense that the out-group’s members fundamentally differ from the in-group in their thinking and values....”[1] The schism between in-group and out-group within the articles arises from the theoretical stance the authors and the interviewees adopt. They argue on the behalf of Shaolin’s growth largely by positing a system of order over Shaolin and wushu  (and implicitly over all martial arts). But as Bernard Faure explains in the opening of his book The Rhetoric of Immediacy, “[t]he elaboration of a Chan orthodoxy becomes a metaphor for the writing of a book [or a series of articles]: just like the tradition, the author ideally fulfills a function of mastery, control, and rarefaction of discourse…. in order to deconstruct the tradition, that is, to reveal it in its essential multiplicity, one has to fight against the teleological tendencies of controlled narrative….”[2]  The central point of the essay is, in the words of Faure, to expose “the teleological tendencies” of the Shaolin discourse and the way they move from the mental realm to the social realm to become the source of animosity between Shaolin kung fu and contemporary wushu (and by extension other martial arts).

The concepts central to this essay come from Sabine Frühstück and Wolfram Manzenreiter’s “Neverland Lost”, which provides three large categories to group the topics the articles address.

 Culture as a system of meaning offers itself for analysis at three levels where cultural representation become highly visible: ideological, material, and social. The ideological dimension of culture refers to entities and processes of the mind; the material dimension of culture is best explained as the various modes and artifacts in which meaning is accessible to the mind; the social dimension is demarcated by the ways in which the cultural inventory of thoughts and things is distributed throughout a community and its social relationships. [3]

In the case of the Shaolin articles the ideological element corresponds to Chan Buddhism, the material element to Shaolin kung fu, and the social element concerns Shaolin in relationship to wushu. In each of these aspects, I will examine via various theoretical perspectives the points of slippage and explore how they interconnect over the discourse in Shaolin outside of China.

Chan is...?: The Ideological Element of Shaolin in America

    With Shaolin’s emergence into the American martial arts world, the larger martial community has a chance to begin to understand the dynamics at work within Shaolin kung fu. A major point of interest is the role of Buddhism in Shaolin, as it is the core of Shaolin’s identity as a Buddhist temple and the locus to the material and social elements of Shaolin culture. To examine this element of the articles’ discourse, I employ the terminology from Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki’s The Black Image in the White Mind—the frame, schema, and the meta-schema. The frame “reside[s] within media texts and public discourse... highlight[ing] and link[ing] data selectively to tell more or less coherent stories that define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgments, and suggest remedies.”[4]  In the case of the Shaolin articles, the frame the majority of the articles work within is to aid “in the spread of Shaolin dharma to America.”[5]  Beneath the frame is the schema, “a set of related concepts that allow people to make inferences about new information based on already organized prior knowledge.”[6]  In the case of these articles, the schema is explained in the following way by Gene Ching.

While Chinese Chan is practiced in the U.S., Japanese Zen is more dominant... Chinese Chan has yet to be significantly acknowledged in American popular culture.... It is overshadowed by Japanese Zen... [7]

Lastly, there is the meta-schema, “overarching associations between sets of schema that link concepts....”[8]  From the above quote we can see two things: 1.) there are two schemas involving Shaolin—the Chan schema and the Zen schema, and 2.) the two schema are in competition (or perhaps antagonism) in the mind of the author. There are two meta-schemas that can relate Shaolin, Chan, and Zen together: either Chan Buddhism as the form of Buddhism practiced at Shaolin needs to be distinguished from Zen or understood through Zen. We see an example of the first meta-schema in Ervin Nieves’ interview with Shi Guolin when Shi Guolin explains

[t]here is a saying: Chan was created in India, blossomed in China, and gained fruit in Japan.... The Japanese learned Chan and used it in their real lives. The Chinese contributed to the development of Chan theory in the temples and mountains, but not everyone embraced it. [9]

While Shi Guolin’s explanation is good at abeying an antagonistic Chan/Zen relationship, it nonetheless leaves a point of slippage in its wake—Chan as Buddhist theory and Zen as Buddhist practice. Benard Faure presents the problem within this genealogical history in the opening of his book. “True, Zen succeeded historically to Chan, but what did it actually inherit from it?... Chan and Zen are not monolithic entities, but fluid, ever changing networks....”[10]  As Shi Guolin fails to address this fundamental question, in the end his train of thought simply opts to gloss over this meta-schematic point of slippage.

The more commonly seen meta-schema in the articles is that Zen and Chan can be used interchangeably, evidenced in titles like “Thoughts on Zen and Kungfu” and subtitles like “Senior Monk Shi Deyang Contemplates the Mystery of Shaolin Zen.” The problem with this interchangeability is that, as Faure says, neither Chan nor Zen are subject to one standard definition. Furthermore, the “Zen” people commonly refer to is often the Zen that D. T. Suzuki described “between the turn of the twentieth century [and] the mid-1960’s.” This “Zen”, as Faure explains,

is in many respects an inverted image of that given by Christians; [Suzuki] relied on Christian categories even when rejecting them. If the Western standpoint represent an Orientalism... in which Buddhism was looked down upon, Suzuki... represent[s] an Orientalism that offers an idealized, nativist image... [11]

The “Zen” so often used in parlance refers to an idealized image of Buddhism and not to actual practices. But the bigger problem in using Zen as an interchangeable term with Chan is that Chan Buddhism is never defined. As Etienne Balibar explains, “[a]ll identity is individual, but there is no individual identity that is not historical, or in other words, constructed within a field of social values, norms of behavior and collective symbols.”[12]  The authors of the articles seen to acknowledge the historical element of Balibar’s statement through the Chan = Zen equation while completely ignoring the opening observation. As a result, we, the reading audience, are no more clear on what Chan Buddhism and its practices are than before we read the articles. So while the first meta-schema addresses one problem only to have another arise, this second meta-schema is undermined by a failure to address the problem within the terminology and concepts it uses.

To conclude this section and segway into the discussion of kung fu as the material element of Shaolin culture, I would like to look at a phrase that appears in several articles—chan quan yi ti (禪拳一體 ).This phrase appears in the afterword to an article on Shi Guolin in the August 2000 edition and in Abbot Shi Yongxin’s opening message of the January/February 2002 edition. The normal translation of this phrase is “Chan and fist are one body.” This reading has as its underlying premise that Chan, fist (quan) and one body (yi ti) are all nouns and there must be some equivalence among the three. The best way to summarize this argument is that the authors are saying that chan quan yi ti is an abbreviated form of the Classical Chinese sentence chan yu quan, yi ti ye (禪與拳,一體也), which translates as “Chan and fist are one body.” However, there is another way of seeing this phrase.

Michael Fuller, in his book An Introduction to Literary Chinese, identifies expressions like yi ti as a number complement, “a number and measure after [a] noun or verb.”[13]  If we see the Shaolin proverb as possessing numerical and grammatical elements, there are two possible ways to view the phrase. One way is, as the articles and their participants describe, an equation where Chan Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu are part of the “one body”, represented mathematically as:

Chan Buddhism + Shaolin kung fu = 1 body

There is, however, a second relation the three can enter into: a distributive one, represented mathematically as:
(Chan Buddhism + Shaolin kung fu)1 body

The implication of this relationship is that it expresses the exact opposite of the equation; Chan Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu constitute two distinct bodies (of knowledge) which may or may not be mutually exclusive. The problem within the articles is that rather than realizing that both readings are not only possible but at work, they privilege the equation reading as it fits in their minds with the framework of promoting Shaolin in America. In doing so, they go against Chan Buddhist doctrine as described by Master Sheng-yen.

[I]n certain respects Chan truly requires no learning, no practice, no effort whatsoever. If it did depend on such things, it would not be Chan. But we are very active, and addicted to artifice, and have far too many things to do. . . . For this reason it is not entirely correct to say that Chan involves no practice. There are indeed principle that must be followed. [14]

So what the articles do is focus on one half of Chan ideology; in describing the material and social dimensions of Shaolin culture, the errors within the ideological discourse, as I shall illustrate, are carried over—if not compounded—in the later two facets of the discourse.

Kung fu as Shaolin’s Material

As stated earlier, Sabine Frühstück and Wofram Manzenreiter define the material element of culture as a means of connecting mind and meaning. On the surface, Shaolin kung fu would seem to fit the description, especially in the following passage from Master Sheng-yen.

Many Asian traditions of healing and religion employ methods of physical exercise as a supplement to meditative contemplation. In Indian yoga, for example, there are various sequences of movement and postures known as aµsana. . . . These aµsana are used to prepare the body and mind in preparation for deeper method of samaµdhi, or meditative concentration. In Chinese Daoism. . .Taijiquan and the various martial arts forms are used for much the same effect. The Chinese Buddhist tradition makes use of the martial exercises of the famous Shaolin Monastery. [15]

But can the same be said once these ideas are placed into the framework of the Shaolin articles? If the problem of the ideological discourse is in/description—that is, how completely and accurately Chan Buddhism’s doctrine is described and the implications bound up with omissions, then the problem of the material discourse is exemplification—that is, how the authors and participants rationalize Shaolin kung fu as embodying Chan Buddhism. By “exemplifying”, I am referring to Noël Carroll’s definition: “x exemplifies y if and only if (1) x possesses y and (2) x refers to y.”[16]  The heart of the material problem lies in the second condition of Carroll’s definition; how exactly does Shaolin kung fu refer to Chan Buddhism, especially when Chan Buddhism attempts to eradicate all references?

Chan Buddhism is known for its distrust of language as “language was recognized by [Chan masters] as a necessary evil. . . .”[17]  Often the dialogues of Chan Buddhism, when they make references to and definitions of items, point to something that seems completely unrelated as illustrated in the example below.

The Master gave an evening lecture, instructing the group as follows: “At times, one takes away the person but does not take away the environment. At times, one takes away the environment but does not take away the person. At times, one takes away both the person and the environment. At times, one takes away neither the person nor the environment.”

At that time, a monk asked, “What does it mean to take away the person, but not take away the environment?”

The Master said, “Warm sun shines forth spreading the earth with brocade. The little child’s hair hangs down, white as silk thread.” . . . [18]

We can see a similar type of “areferentiality” in the correlation of Chan Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu within the articles.

In his “Thoughts on Zen and Kung Fu”, Shi Guolin opens with the following statement: “Shaolin kungfu and Zen are inseparable. They can’t survive, one without the other. In Shaolin Temple Zen is a theory you can’t touch or see, but it can be represented through martial arts.”[19]  In his description, Shi Guolin makes Chan intangible and an element of the mind, but how exactly Chan is represented (and by extension gains tangibility) through martial arts is never explained. However in an earlier interview, he gives a much lengthier explanation.

Shaolin Kung Fu is a form or manifestation of Chan. For those entering the realm of Wu (martial arts) with a mind on Chan, the silent smile awaits them. When Chan and Wu are in harmony, Chan and Chuan (Fist) is nowhere to be found. Shaolin martial arts then, is a part of spiritual practice from China’s Shaolin Monastery. The idea is that by following a strict martial arts discipline, the gap between the body and the mind is bridged. If the Buddhist teachings are adhered to something magical happens, namely, the martial arts discipline is transformed into a vehicle for spiritual enlightenment. [20]

Here Shi Guolin attempts to show that kung fu is welcomed as an acceptable practice the same way Chan says the Gautama Buddha’s dharma was welcomed—with a smile.

When the Buddha was trying to pass on his Dharma, he picked a flower and showed it to his assembled disciples. None of them understood the meaning of his action except Mahaµkaµsyapa, whose face broke into a wide smile. Buddha then declared: “I hold the Treasure of the Eye of the True Dharma, the deep and subtle spirit of nirvaµna and I now pass it on to Mahaµkaµsyapa. [21]

By alluding to the above story, Shi Guolin claims that the infusion of Chan into martial arts is as simple as the transfer of Buddhist dharma. However the transferal story is not so simple at its core. How exactly Mahaµkaµsyapa’s smile signifies his worthiness to receive the dharma is never explained. Likewise, Chan’s infusion into kung fu has an unresolved question at its core: how exactly is Chan able to enter into the practice of martial arts? Shi Guolin goes on to describe the role of breathing in martial arts, which does parallel Master Sheng-yen’s description of breathing in zuochan (Japanese, zazen, “seated meditation”), but if we recall the Sheng-yen passage cited at the beginning of this section, martial arts can only supplement zuochan practice, which is the practice that leads to enlightenment. So yet another question must be addressed: can kung fu be the primary vehicle for obtaining Chan enlightenment and if so how?

To answer this question, we must first understand what Chan enlightenment is. Master Sheng-yen provides the following definition of Chan.

The word chan, from which Chan Buddhism, or Zen Buddhism, takes its name, is a Chinese transliteration of the Indian Buddhist term dhyana, meaning “meditative concentration” or “meditative practice.” Applied specifically to the Chan or Zen school, it carries the particular sense of the cultivation and experience of enlightenment itself, and not just any sort of meditative experience. Thus Chan Buddhism is often characterized as the school of meditative experience and enlightened insight par excellence. [22]

The central concept of Chan is the experience of the Buddha’s enlightenment. So if Shaolin kung fu is a Chan vehicle, it must lead practitioners to experience the Buddha’s enlightenment. In “Shi Xinghong on His Zen (Chan) Experience”, an attachment to an article on Shi Xinghong, the monk relays an encounter with his Chan master. He recalls

one day he called me to his room. He asked me, “How do you think your kung fu is?” I replied naturally, “Not bad, pretty good. Why do you ask?” He said, “Because I don’t think you’re a top kung fu person.” I asked, “Why?” He said, “Because your mind is not quiet. It’s floating. Thus you could never be good. His words suddenly hit me, just like a staff on my head. [23]

This story clearly centers around experience, but is this, as the author implies by the title, a Chan experience? According to Master Sheng-yen, all Buddhist system, Chan included,

describe a process of taking body and mind from a state of confusion and disparity; through a condition of one-pointedness, or unity; to the experience of no-mind, or no-thought. Methods of practice may themselves be functionally classified as:

(1) Procedures for purifying the mind of basic hindrances and obscurations
(2) Methods for concentrating or unifying the mind. . .
(3) Techniques for developing the uniquely Buddhist insight into selflessness. . .
(4) Buddhist techniques for extending the insight of no-self to that of genuine emptiness
(5) Emptiness in its absolute or most profound sense. [24]

Shi Xinghong’s experience and the method that provoked it fall into the first category as they center around removing the obstacle to improvement. It is merely the first step to achieving no-mind and not an experience of no-mind. As the experience of emptiness never appears in any of the articles, the Chan discussed in the articles is an ideological system that cannot be described in totality. The problem is the same one Zhang Longxi sees Confucian and Zhuang-zi encounter.

When Zhuangzi called for the man who forgets his words while preserving his meaning, he seemed to know that he was never to find such a man. We may also recall that Confucius, despite his wish to be silent, nevertheless acknowledges the necessity of speaking to transmit what the sages have already said in the past. [25]

However, unlike these two ancient Chinese philosophers who seek out silence but find themselves writing, the participants of the Shaolin discourse seek to flesh out an explanation of their art as a practice of enlightenment. But they overlook and ignore the pauses and gaps within their own discourse, especially the silence of Buddha’s successor in the dharma transmission story. As a result, the connection between Chan and Shaolin is not (nor will it ever be) complete as it incorporates the “areferentiality” inherent in Chan. Then why assert that Chan and Shaolin kung fu are inseparable? Why say that kung fu examplies or represents Chan Buddhism in order to promote Shaolin dharma?

Bernard Faure presents an answer to these questions.

One cannot rule out that the common assertion according to which neither the Dao nor awakening can be spoken of reflects the reluctance of a spiritual or artistic elite to disclose its esoteric knowledge and constitute an attempt to preserve its social distinction and symbolic capital. The obvious difficulty, and perhaps impossibility, of conveying truth through language should not prevent us from suspecting some unwillingness on the part of those who have a specific interest in remaining the privileged holders of ultimate truth.  [26]

While the writers and interviewed subjects of the articles may disagree with Faure’s critique of the Shaolin/Chan linkage as involving a “reluctance” or “specific interest” on their part, they cannot deny Faure’s observation of attempting to create and preserve social distinction and symbolic capital. This is at the core of bringing Shaolin dharma to America. As much as the authors and subjects work to clear up misconceptions about Shaolin, they are asserting, as Faure as well as Früstück and Manzenieter point out, that Shaolin has a unique position among martial arts. But this assertion of a social dynamic within Shaolin kung fu has flaws like its ideological and material counterparts.

Lines of Demarcation: The Social Nature of the Shaolin/Wushu Debate

The last element of the articles’ discourse to explore is the social element. Frühstück and Manzenreiter define the social element of culture as “the ways in which the cultural inventory of thoughts and things is distributed throughout a community and its social relationship.” From the articles alone it is very hard to determine the distribution of thoughts and things related to Shaolin. However, Shaolin’s social relationship with wushu is present within the articles. Jean-François Lyotard, in his seminal work The Postmodern Condition, explains how narratives such as the articles are able to not only describe but create social relations.

[A] narrative tradition is also the tradition of the criteria defining a threefold competence—‘know-how,’ ‘knowing how to speak,’ and ‘knowing how to hear’ [savoir-faire, savoir-dire, savoir-entendre]—through which the community’s relationship to itself and its environment is played out. What is transmitted through these is the set of pragmatic rules that constitutes the social bond. [27]

Over the course of the articles there are a number of moments where the “social bond” between Shaolin and wushu is described and can be viewed in terms of the actions Lyotard uses: doing (faire), speaking (dire), and listening (entendre).

The earliest expression of the wushu/kung fu relationship is found in the interview with Shi Guolin.

 [T]hough it does appear that Shaolin wushu has gained a great ascendancy in China—here I am using the term wushu to mean martial arts without Buddhism—I am confident that real Shaolin martial arts will continue to exist at the Shaolin Temple. From appearance Shaolin wushu is the same as Shaolin martial arts, but the real difference is that in genuine Shaolin, the mind and body are united in harmony via Buddhism.…Kung fu forms appear the same as in wushu. The key difference in the wushu practitioners just practice the external forms, but monks use kung fu as an entry into Ch’an. Genuine Shaolin martial arts has the overriding principle that one must use Ch’an to enter martial arts. [28]

Shi Guolin’s statement is a deontic one, which “prescribe[s]. . . the difference between the sexes, children, neighbors, foreigners, etc.”[29]  In this case, it prescribes the difference between Shaolin kung fu, which intimately connected with Buddhism, and wushu which lacks such a connection. The social dynamic Shi Guolin is espousing via the above passage can be explained using the actions of Lyotard. Shi Guolin sees the Shaolin-wushu relationship as involving acting and speaking; the last feature of listening is a priviledge afforded to Shaolin kung fu because of its connection with Buddhism. But as demonstrated in the prior two sections, the argument that Shaolin kung fu is a manifestation or exemplification of Chan is not without problems. The problems of an incomplete description of Chan ideology and an areferential connection between Chan and kung fu thwarts any attempt to establish Shi Guolin’s categories of Shaolin kung fu as connected with Buddhism and wushu as unconnected. 

A more belligerent reformulation of this social dynamic appears in the comments of Shi Deyang.

As a martial artist, I think the way the world took in the past encountered some twists….Compulsory and traditional competition lost their original taste. Obviously, it is because the living standard of  the people has been much improved. Practitioners don’t pay enough attention on energy to practice. It’s lazy kung fu.… For example, modern compulsories ask practitioners to make their movements to be more open—it’s affected by the “open policy”—this lost the attack and defense application of martial arts. [30]

Shi Deyang takes a different approach; he opts to place a bracket between the martial world and the world-at-large. The world-at-large does not have interest in the true nature of martial arts and in Shi Deyang’s opinion, should stay out of the martial world. In terms of Lyotard’s triad of actions, Shi Deyang removes not only wushu’s ability to be heard but its ability to speak. His deontic statement sees wushu as connected to the things he does not wish to see in martial arts. Shi Deyang’s tactic is similar to one Karatani Kojin sees Immanuel Kant makes. “In The Critique of Judgment, Kant attempted to bracket interest, but what made this thought possible was the commodity economy itself. Hence, ever since art came to be art, it has been connected to commodification.”[31]  Likewise Shi Deyang’s critique of economic and political influence on martial arts is itself connected to those same economic and political systems. That very fact is apparent in the article.

At that moment, Deyang stopped to answer his cell phone.… Deyang’s phone even has an intricate ring tone, reminiscent of a Buddhist chant. After quickly deflecting the call, he continued. “What I just said now on the Open Policy and world reform, there are areas that mobile phones cannot reach…” [32]

The stance Shi Deyang takes is possible only because of its interconnectedness with the very things he critiques—politics, economics, and their influence on marital arts—which in turn undermines the critique itself. But not all monks have such problematic approaches to describing the relationship between Shaolin kung fu and wushu.

Towards the end of the article on Shi Deshan and Shi Xinghao, the position of these two monks on the wushu/kung fu distinction is stated as follows.

Kung Fu is an ancient art to protect the country and defend against enemies. True Kung Fu cannot be performance.…Modern times have created Wushu, which is performance. Wushu still has defense skills, but they are made more flowery, transforming it into a beautiful art.… Wushu is a beautiful expression of martial skill that resonates with everyone, even non-martial artists, because it is so spectacular and entertaining It emphasizes art and spirit.… Now, both traditional Kung Fu and modern Wushu are important aspects of Shaolin, just sharing these enlightening skills outside China is vital to the spread of the Shaolin way. [33]

Here we see the same elements—the promotion of Shaolin dharma vis-a-vis kung fu and wushu—cast in a different light. This statement would reach full clarity two years later when Shi Xinghao explains

Shaolin was used for fighting and you had to know it to protect your life, it was a way of survival. Even today there might not be masters as great as before, because now we have guns and because times are different—maybe no one feels that you must know kung fu in order to stay alive. So this is where Longfist comes in; it is the same concept just developed at a different time in China’s history. The focus is more on appearance than application, but as I mentioned before it has its roots in traditional kung fu. There is no need to keep them too separate, and yet you can’t allow them to be too close. You must know the difference between them and be able to separate them out if need, but one is not better than the other… it just depends on what you are looking. [34]

Shi Xinghao separates himself from Shi Guolin and Shi Deyang in a major way by discussing the wushu/kung fu division in terms of historical trends and moments. Shi Xinghao is allowing a space for wushu to be heard. This is largely due to the fact that he sees wushu and Shaolin kungfu dialectically, that is, he recognizes the interconnected yet contradictory nature between Shaolin kung fu and contemporary wushu. Among the three descriptions, Xinghao’s argument more accurately reflects the dynamic between the two martial arts. This distinction matters only because Shi Guolin, Shi Deyang, and a majority of the Shaolin articles and their participants push for a judgment call in favor of Shaolin. Shi Xinghao’s approach to his own art as well as wushu represents the position that open Shaolin up and best promotes the spread because it invites rather than ostracizes and dialogues rather than dismisses. But what does this opinion being relegated to the minority position say about the Shaolin discourse in the Kungfu Qigong articles?


Hans-Georg Gadamer, one of the major figures in hermeneutic philosophy, makes the following observation in an essay discussing the early phases of hermeneutics in light of its current course of development.

It seems… to be generally characteristic of the emergence of the hermeneutical problem that something distant has to be brought close, a certain strangeness overcome, a bridge built between the once and the now. [35]

The Shaolin articles in Kungfu Qigong Magazine are struggling with their own “hermeneutical” problem. The authors and interviewed subjects find themselves having to overcome the distance and strangeness that can alienate Shaolin from the American public. In response to this, they have tried to work out a description of Shaolin on a number of levels. But this description, as I have shown here, breaks down because the participants often fail to realize their description is prosleptic. That is, the things the participants choose to overlook are the same things that undermine and invalidate the description. But most of the participants would not want to accept this observation; they would argue that they are merely drawing on the stance Shaolin has always adopted. To conclude this essay, I would like to consider where this prosleptic invocation of tradition originates and whether is something salvageable in the discourse.

The Shaolin articles can be thought of as part of what Frühstück and Manzenreiter call territorialization, “the extension of [a] culture by adding new territory….”[36]  Most of the participants in the discourse would argue along the lines that Harumi Befu does at the end of his introductory essay.

[A] major conclusion that one arrives at in considering Japan’s globalization is the undeniable presence of Japan as a center and its peripheries…. [T]he center-peripheries concept has to be understood in temporal terms: the center multiplies and moves. [37]

On the surface, Befu’s observation seems to support the goals of the Shaolin proponents; but in fact it is not as much of an ally as it appears to be.

Befu’s discussion of globalization later reveals a complicit concept. “Likewise, at one time, automobile manufacture was limited to the West, but is now decentered; automobiles are made in other parts of the world, including Japan, which is a center rivaling the West.” (Befu, 19) Globalization, as Befu points out, is not a process by which a local system is reproduced on a global scale, but one that breaks down old systems and forges new one. The process of “decentering” inherent in globalization “necessarily results in diversification…”[38]  This connection among globalization, decentering, and diversification seems to have left most of the Shaolin proponents in a quandary, expressed in the following way by Shi Guolin.

The greatest challenge that the Shaolin Temple faces in the 21st century is to continue to spread the teaching of Buddha… given the restrictive nature of current government of China and the fast and frenzied pace of many of today’s modern societies. The temple must remain true to its Chan Buddhist roots while as the same time adopt[ing] modern methods to disseminate its message. [39]

On the surface, Shi Guolin’s quandary seems to be a somewhat neutral hermeneutical question. It has a number of deontic phrases like the “the restrictive nature of the current government in China” and “the fast and frenzied pace of many of today’s modern societies;” however these do not pose a significant problem to establishing the hermeneutical bridge that Gadamer describes. However, these deontic phrases are reworked in a more belligerent form by Gene Ching.

There is a diverse selection of styles in the U.S. Not as many people want to study Shaolin kung fu as are interested in learning Japanese Karate, Korean Tae Kwon Do and other arts. Additionally, without a basis in Confucianism, Americans are not as loyal to their masters or style, and many do not commit to a level of dedication that Shaolin requires….American students have become the voice of Shaolin in both the general media and the martial arts magazines. This is somewhat a function of the language barrier, but is aggravated by the cultural barrier. Many American writers do not understand the complexity of China. [40]

Such strong deontic statements as these make overcoming the alienation of Shaolin nearly impossible. So why does this happen yet again?

Gadamer present a rationalization of this aggressive stance later in his essay.

My thesis is… that the thing which hermeneutics teaches us is to see through the dogmatism of asserting an opposition and separation between the ongoing, natural “tradition” and the reflective appropriation of it. For behind this assertion stands a dogmatic objectivism that distorts the very concept of hermeneutical reflection itself. In this objectivism the understander is seen… in such a way as to imply that his own understanding does not enter into the event. [41]

The problem, according to Gadamer, lies not in the approach of the Shaolin proponents but in the attitude behind the approach. The hermeneutical reflection Gadamer speaks of involves something that is known as the hermeneutical circle, the process of going from things one has already interpreted and understood to things one is attempting to understand and interpret. Under the “dogmatic objectivism,” however, the circle undergoes a transformation. No longer is it a process of understanding but a loop oscillating between providing information that can lead to understanding of Shaolin and giving deontic pronouncements that lead to misunderstanding and alienation. The Shaolin discourse unfortunately is, in the words of Theodor Adorno,

confine[d] within precisely those stereotypes that thinking  should dissolve…. The formation of stereotypes… promotes collective narcissism. Those qualities with which one identifies oneself, the essence of one’s own group, imperceptibly become the good itself and the foreign group, the others, bad. [42]

It is in light of these observations that Shi Xinghao’s approach is so appealing; Shi Xinghao avoids descending to stereotyping and judgments of good and bad and seems to honor Gadamer’s vision. With all of this in mind, how should we view the Shaolin discourse without stereotyping?

The answer, I believe, can be seen in Donald Lopez’s examination of the interpretation of Buddhist sutras.

The variety of characterizations of the word of the Buddha... points  to a tension that moves through a the exegesis of the Mahaµyaµna sutras, a tension between what the Buddha taught and what he intended, between upaya and doctrine, between method and truth. Simply stated, the problem is this: The Buddha taught many things to many people in accordance with their aspirations, capacities and needs. How is one to choose among these myriad teachings, each “true” for its listener, to determine the final view of the teacher? [43]

One possible answer to Lopez’s question is to not choose and instead try to see all these teachings and the relationships they enter into. This would be to examine what Pierre Bourdieu calls the “field,” which involves “the structured set of manifestations of the social agents…, literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestos or polemics, etc…”  The only problem is that the set is not a complete one. While the Kungfu Qigong articles are clearly part of the field, there are a number of voices not yet represented. We have yet to hear from the American students of Shaolin so as to see how they view their role in the history and tradition of Shaolin. Nor have we heard from the other monks in America besides Shi Guolin and Shi Xinghao, who sit in a mediating position between American and the Shaolin Temple. Likewise, the voice of the Shaolin Temple in Henan is also quiet on its view of the growth of Shaolin in America. All of these voices have the power to redefine the field and the relationships within it. Thus, Shaolin is in a state of flux; what this essay has done is to lay out the dynamics of a particular moment in Shaolin’s growth in America and how these can impact the relations amongst members of the Shaolin communities as well as members of other martial art communities. If there is a lesson for all martial artist to learn, it would be that we all need “to come of age, look [our] own historical and societal situation and the international situation straight in the eye….”[45]  For only when we do this can we, as martial artists, begin to move beyond questions of in-group/out-group and start to play a more positive role in the martial traditions we so value and cherish.


1.  Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki, The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 57, 50.

2.  Bernard Faure, The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1991), 3-4.

3. Sabine Frühstück and Wofram Manzenreiter, "Neverland Lost: Judo Cultures in Austria, Japan, and Elsewhere Struggling for Cultural Hegemony at the Vienna Budokan," in Globalizing Japan: Ethnography of Japanese Presence in Asia, Europe, and America, ed. Harumi Befu and Sylvie Guichard-Anguis (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 70.

4. Entman and Rojecki, 49.

5.  Gene Ching, "The Dragon and the Eagle: The Shaolin Diaspora in America." Kungfu, 2. Available from

6.  Entman and Rojecki, 48.

7. Ching, 3.

8.  Entman and Rojecki, 50.

9.  Ervin Nieves, "Ch'an Buddhism and Shaolin Martial Arts: Shaolin Monk Shi Guolin Unveils Shaolin's True Essence," KungFu-Qigong, October/November 1997, 37.

10.  Bernard Faure, Chan Insights and Oversights: An Epistemological Critique of the Chan Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 3.

11.  Ibid, 53.

12.  Etienne Balibar, "The Nation Form: History and Ideology," in Race Critical Theories, ed. Philomena Essed and David Theo Goldberg (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 221.

13.  Michael A. Fuller, An Introduction to Literary Chinese (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 1999), 31.

14.  Sheng-yen Chang, Hoofprint of the Ox: Principles of the Chan Buddhist Path as Taught by a Modern Chinese Master (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 164.

15.  Ibid, 34.

16.  Nöel Carroll, Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 88.

17.  Faure, Chan Insights and Oversights, 199.

18.  Bernard Faure, Double Exposure: Cutting Across Buddhist and Western Discourses, trans. Janet Lloyd (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 97.

19.  Shi Guolin, "Thoughts on Zen and Kungfu," Kungfu Qigong Magazine, January/February 2002 2002, 40.

20.  Ervin Nieves, "Ch'an Buddhism and Shaolin Martial Arts: Shaolin Monk Shi Guolin Unveils Shaolin's True Essence," KungFu-Qigong, October/November 1997, 35.

21.  Faure, Double Exposure, 98.

22.  Chang, Hoofprints of the Ox, 17; emphatics are my own addition.

23.  Martha Burr, "Shaolin Fist in Budapest: Monk Shi Xinghong at the Hungarian Shaolin Temple Trains Cops, Ex-Comrades and World Travelers," Kungfu Taichi Magazine, July/August 2004, 50.

24.  Chang, Hoofprint of the Ox, 26.

25,.  Zhang Longxi, The Tao and the Logos: Literary Hermeneutics, East and West (Durham, Duke University Press, 1992), 41.

26.  Faure, Chan Insights and Oversights, 197.

27.  Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 21.

28.  Ervin Nieves, "Ch'an Buddhism and Shaolin Martial Arts: Shaolin Monk Shi Guolin Unveils Shaolin's True Essence," KungFu-Qigong, October/November 1997, 37.

29.  Lyotard, 20.

30.  Gene Ching, “Shaolin Here and Now: Senior Monk Shi Deyang Contemplates the Mystery of Shaolin Zen.” Kungfu Taichi Magazine, July/August 2004, 28.

31.  Kojin Karatani, “Uses of Aesthetics: After Orientalism.” Translated by Sabu Kohso. boundary 2, Volume 25, No.2 (Summer 1998),  150.
32. Ching, “Shaolin Here and Now,” 28.

33.  Gene Ching, “Shaolin Brothers go West: Shi De Shan and Shi Xing Hao, Two Shaolin Temple Monks, Begin Teaching in America.” Kungfu Qigong Magazine, December 1999, 56.

34.  Dieter Wagner, “Can Traditional Shaolin and Modern Wushu Exist Together?: Shaolin Monk Shi Xinghao Speaks Out.” Kungfu Qigong Magazine, January/February 2002, 53.

35.  Hans-Georg Gadamer, “On the Scope of Hermeneutical Reflection,” in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated and edited by David E. Linge, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 22.

36.  Frühstück and Manzenreiter, 70.

37.  Harumi Befu, “The Global Context of Japan Outside of Japan,” in Globalizing Japan: Ethnography of Japanese Presence in Asia, Europe, and America, ed. Harumi Befu and Sylvie Guichard-Anguis (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003) 19.

38.  Joseph S. M. Lau, Preface, in The Question of Reception: Martial Arts Fiction in English Translation, ed. Liu Ching-chih (Hong Kong: Center for Literature and Translation, 1997), iii.

39.  Ching, “The Dragon and the Eagle,” 5.

40.  Ibid, 11, 12.

41. Gadamer, 28.

42.  Theodor Adorno, “On the Question ‘What is German?,” in Theodor Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 205.

43.  Donald S. Lopez, Jr. “On the Interpretation of the Mahaµyaµna Suµtras,” in Buddhist Hermeneutics, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988), 50.

44.  Pierre Bourdieu, “The Field of Culture Production, or: The Economic World Reversed,” in Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993), 30.

45.  Adorno, 206.


I. The Kungfu Qigong Articles

Burr, Martha. “Shaolin Fist in Budapest: Monk Shi Xinghong at the Hungarian Shaolin Temple Trains Cops, Ex-Comrades, and World Travelers.” Kungfu Taichi Magazine, July/August 2004: 48-52.

Ching, Gene. “A Diamond of the Fruitful Forrest: Shaolin Temple Overseas and the Venerable Shi Guolin.” Kungfu Qigong Magazine, August 2000: 30, 40-45.

                    . “The Dragon and the Eagle: The Shaolin Diaspora in America.” Kungfu 1-14.

                    . “Shaolin Brothers Go West: Shi De Shan and Shi Xing Hao, Two Shaolin Temple Monks, Begin Teaching in America.” Kungfu Qigong Magaizine, December 1999: 53-56.

                    . “Shaolin Here and Now: Senior Monk Shi Deyang Contemplates the Mystery of Shaolin Zen.” Kungfu Taichi Magazine, July/August 2004: 26-28.

Nieves, Ervin. “Ch’an Buddhism and Shaolin Martial Arts: Shaolin Monk Shi Guolin Unveils Shaolin’s True Essence.” Kungfu Qigong Magazine, October/November 1997: 26-29, 34-38.

Shi, Guolin. “Thoughts on Zen and Kungfu.” Kungfu Qigong Magazine, January/February 2002: 40.

Shi, Yongxi. “A Special Message to the Readers of Kungfu Qigong from Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin.” Kungfu Qigong Magazine, January/February 2002: 9.

Wagner, Dieter. “Can Traditional Shaolin and Modern Wushu Exist Together?: Shaolin Monk Shi Xing Hao Speaks Out.” Kungfu Qigong Magazine, January/February 2002: 52-55.

II. Theoretical and Other Materials

Adorno, Theodor. “On the Question ‘What is German?’” In Theodor Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998: 205-214.

Balibar, Etienne. “The Nation Form: History and Ideology.” In Philomena Essed and David Theo Goldberg, ed. Race Critical Theories. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002:

Befu, Harumi. “The Global Context of Japan outside Japan.” In Harumi Befu and Sylvie Guichard Anguis, ed. Globalizing Japan: Ethnography of the Japanese Presence in Asia, Europe and America. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003: 3-21.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed.” In Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Edited by Randall Johnson. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993: 29-73.

Carroll, Nöel. Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction. London and New York, Routledge, 1999.

Chang, Sheng-yen. Hoofprints of the Ox: Principles of the Chan Buddhist Path as Taught by a Modern Chinese Master. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Entman, Robert M. and Andrew Rojecki. The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Faure, Bernard. Chan Insights and Oversights: An Epistemological Critique of the Chan Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

                          . Double Exposure: Cutting Across Buddhist and Western Discourses. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

                          . The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Frühstück, Sabine and Wolfram Manzenreiter. “Neverland Lost: Judo Cultures in Austria, Japan, and Elsewhere Struggling for Cultural Hegemony at the Vienna Budokan.” In Harumi Befu and Sylvie Guichard Anguis, ed. Globalizing Japan: Ethnography of the Japanese Presence in Asia, Europe and America. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003: 69-93.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection.” In Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Karatani, Kojin. “Uses of Aesthetics: After Orientalism.” boundary 2, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 1998): 145-160.

Lau, Joseph S. M. Preface. In Liu Ching-chih, ed. The Question of Reception: Martial Arts Fiction in English Translation. Hong Kong: Center for Literature and Translation, 1997: iii-iv.

Lopez, Donald S. Jr. “On the Interpretation of the Mahaµyaµna Suµtras.” In Donald S. Lopez Jr. ed. Buddhist Hermeneutics. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988: 47-70.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Benington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Zhang, Longxi. The Tao and the Logos: Literary Hermeneutics, East and West. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.

LeRon Harrison is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine in East Asian Languages and Literature, specializing in Japanese court poetry and its appropriation of Chinese poetics. He holds a  bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley in Japanese Language and Literature and a master’s degree from Indiana University in Japanese Literature. He has practiced wushu for nine years and taiji for three, and is currently an assistant coach at the Taichi Wushu Resource in Los Angeles. Harrison has won medals in both disciplines at competitions in and around southern California, including a bronze medal in other weapons at the 2005 Wushu Union US National Chinese Martial Arts Championship in Las Vegas.

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